The seventh annual Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference took place from March 25-27 on Zoom for its third year of fully virtual programming. The event featured a notable lineup of authors, illustrators, and publishing professionals participating in the nation’s largest children’s conference exclusively for Black, Indigenous, and other creators of color. This year, a number of panels highlighted new voices and new approaches—which seemed apropos as the world enters this next phase of the pandemic.
Crafting a Story
Friday kicked off with four master classes: “The Art of Writing the Picture Book” with Carole Boston Weatherford (Unspeakable); “Crafting Perspective and Point-of-View” with Kekla Magoon, author of The Season of Styx Malone and The Rock and the River; “Writing Chapter Books” with Susan Muaddi Darraj, author of the Farah Rocks series with Stone Arch; and “Master Class on the Novel in Verse” with Elisabet Velasquez.
In Weatherford’s workshop, participants examined hybrid-genre texts and experimented with structure, verbs, and voice. Magoon guided both aspiring and accomplished writers in discussion, exercises, and interactive prompts designed to help ground stories with a strong point-of-view. Darraj emphasized the joy of writing for emergent readers, and stressed important craft elements of the category. And Velasquez drew on poetics in her workshop, inspiring storytellers to use elements of poetry in their traditionally structured novels.
The day closed with a panel featuring three novelists detailing their debut journeys: Camille Gomera-Tavarez, author of High Spirits, a collection of 11 interconnected stories from the Dominican diaspora; bestselling picture book author Joanna Ho, whose YA debut, The Silence That Binds Us, is forthcoming from HarperTeen; and Kristen R. Lee, author of Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman, a novel about racism and privilege on elite college campuses. The panel was moderated by Samira Ahmed, author of Internment and Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know.
The three writers described their revision processes, and Ho explained how sensitivity readers helped her confront her own biases. “When the read came back, it was this huge ‘aha’ movement for me of how deeply ingrained some of these things are and how they came through in my writing,” she said. “It’s hard to write truthfully when we have been raised in these systems. It takes effort and you have to be open to others.”
They also spoke of the process of negotiating the white gaze, given the reality that publishing gatekeepers are overwhelmingly white. “I was able to be as raw and authentic as possible,” said Lee, who consciously ignored the white gaze while writing. “The people who get what I’m writing, get it. I’m not sugarcoating or explaining.”
On Saturday, the Kweli conference offered a full day of programming for participants, organized into several “tracks,” including Publishing, Community, and Culture; Novels/Memoir; Illustrated Books; and Nonfiction. In addition, an Intensive track option allowed attendees to delve deep into developmental and line edits with Tiffany Liao, executive editor at Zando Projects.
In “Publishing Is a Long Game,” in the Publishing, Community, and Culture track, Angeline Boulley (Firekeeper’s Daughter), Ho (Eyes That Kiss in the Corners), Kevin Johnson (Cape, due out in 2023), Lee, and Lisa Stringfellow (A Comb of Wishes) illuminated their seemingly interminable journeys towards publishing their first books. Boulley held onto her idea for an “Indigenous Nancy Drew” for decades—it was a 37-year journey from concept to hardcover, including 10 years of actual writing. Johnson began his career in screenwriting, but turned to children’s books later on, a road he has traveled for 26 years.
“Knowing you have a community and working on the next thing, and really believing in your stories [is what carries you],” Ho said.
The panelists also addressed the ways in which their BIPOC identities were misunderstood, minimized, or challenged on their paths to publication. A Comb of Wishes is about mermaids, and Stringfellow said she received initial negative feedback on the concept and approach. “Not enough space is given to BIPOC authors to put a spin [on familiar tropes],” she said. “When we think about mermaids, a very European depiction pops into our heads. There’s a whole diaspora of mermaids around the world.”
Johnson tempered his voice early in his career in order to be more marketable, he explained. “I had been very cautious in the way I wrote,” he said. But his mentor, Kevin Lewis, pushed him to lean into his voice and his authenticity. “I encourage writers not to shy away from your voice, your ethnicity, your background. Just put you on the page.”
In another Publishing, Community, and Culture panel, “Arab American Kidlit: Challenges and Opportunities,” Susannah Aziz (Halal Hot Dogs), Hayan Charara (The Three Lucys), Aya Khalil (The Arabic Quilt), Rhonda Roumani (Umm Kulthum: Star of the East, due in 2023), and Darraj, who served as moderator, discussed the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of Arab American voices in the U.S. publishing landscape.
Roumani explained the burden of representation in the community. “Because there are so few of us, our stories are expected to represent everybody,” she said. “We’re a really diverse community—we’re Christian and Muslim, and Arabs and Kurds, and so many different groups.”
The Arab American community is often conflated with other communities, Darraj explained. “I’ve been invited many times to participate on panels that are meant to represent South Asian writers or to represent Muslim writers,” she said. “This is a problem for us in getting our books published; publishers may be looking to check a box that we don’t necessarily check.”
There is the statistical fact of being a relatively small group in the United States, Charara conceded, but “that doesn’t jive with the massive space we occupy in the American imagination in media, film, news, art, and literature, especially in the past 25 to 40 years,” he said. “Just having a significant number of writers who are Arab writing about Arab characters isn’t enough. This needs to be a collective effort. The artists can’t carry the burden entirely.”
The Future of Publishing
Continuing the “new voices” through-line, Alvina Ling, v-p and editor-in-chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, brought together Autumn Allen, senior editor at Barefoot Books, Liao, executive editor at Zando Projects, and Irene Vázquez, editorial and marketing assistant at Levine Querido for “New Editors, New Cultural Conversations” on Saturday afternoon.
Allen, Liao, and Vázquez described their publishing journeys and the corporate culture at their respective houses, in addition to providing insights into their acquisition processes and whether their cultural background influences the books they acquire. “I’m completely informed by my cultural background,” Vázquez said. “I’m actively seeking works by Black creators, Latinx creators, people at the intersections of those identities, queer creators. There’s work to be done in the children’s marketplace that reflects the wide diversity of the African diaspora.”
The panelists also offered a timely assessment of the industry and a vision for its future. “The market has proved that readers seek out stories that reflect their own experiences but also stories that expand their perspectives,” Liao said. “I hope this is not a trend but something we can sustain by diversifying our workforce.”
“There’s a movement towards more transparency,” Vázquez added, referring to the hashtag #WhatPublishingPaidMe. “I hope that continues and makes the industry more sustainable, both for creators and for people on the publishing side.”
Finally, Allen, Liao, and Vázquez shared their publishing dreams. Vázquez aspires to found a publishing house based in the South, since the industry is so Northeast-centric. “I would love to see what creators who are marginalized would create when they are no longer marginalized,” Allen said. “When they can reach their full potential because they don’t have to first get out all the trauma and anxiety and worry about the white gaze—things that are extra pressures on us as artists.”
Saturday’s closing keynote conversation between Jennifer Baker, senior editor at Amistad Books, creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, and PW Star Watch 2019 Superstar, and Renée Watson (Ways to Share Joy, out in Sept.) focused on craft. “I’m an admirer of Renée Watson’s catalog,” Baker said by way of introduction.
Watson discussed the collaborative processes of publishing, especially with editors. “I come to the table open for feedback, and also knowing what my non-negotiables are,” she said. “Sometimes I have to explain things or have conversations about what is important to me in a story. At the end of the day, your name is on the story.” She urged creators to listen to their instincts, saying, “Sometimes we feel so grateful instead of paying attention to what we need and asking for what we want.”
She also defined success as “being able to be proud of the work that I put out in the world, and knowing that I didn’t compromise my values,” she said. “What is most important to me are the conversations I’m having with Black children, the educators who work with them, the people who love them. I have felt successful from the very beginning because I was living my dream—I’m connecting with people in a real way. That sustains me when I’m feeling all the challenges with the business side of publishing.”
Following the keynote, Kweli announced its inaugural Legacy Award, named in honor of Floyd Cooper, the celebrated children’s book illustrator who died at 65 in 2021. Noni Carter (Good Fortune, Simon & Schuster, 2011) shared a tribute to Cooper and introduced conference participants to the award recipient—Denise Silva Dennis, a retired art school teacher from the Shinnecock Nation. Dennis was one of the 2022 Sing the Truth! Mentees, Kweli’s flagship mentorship program, and is working on her first picture book.
On Sunday morning, attendees reconvened for a keynote interview with Daniel José Older (Ballad & Dagger), who emphasized the need for finding one’s people: “You don’t need a fan club; you need a real community,” he said.
This was followed by a bilingual conversation among sisters Yuyi Morales (Bright Star) and Magaly Morales (illustrator of Pura’s Cuentos: How Pura Belpré Reshaped Libraries with Her Stories by Annette Bay Pimentel), moderated by Leah Henderson (The Magic in Changing Your Stars). “This intimate conversation will get a peek into their lives and their process,” Henderson said of her exchange with the Morales sisters. “It’s also going to be a wonderful moment of stories through our chosen languages.”
Yuyi Morales traced her artistry to her childhood. “Our house was filled with the creativity of my mother,” she said in English. “She didn’t make books in the formal sense, but she was a storyteller. She made our shoes, our dresses, and our underwear. That was passed to us. We had the sense that no matter what, we could always figure it out.”
Magaly Morales said, in Spanish, that she saw her older sister, Yuyi, drawing things “and she has wanted to follow that.” She later detailed her creative process from conception to execution.
Yuyi Morales also expounded on her mantra that “the whole world is an art supply store.” “It’s endless,” she said. “I’m giving myself permission that the process may be unlike anything I’ve done before. It becomes a journey of finding and understanding. Most of the time, I’m not sure where it’s going to take me.”
The trio also discussed happiness and triumph especially when “the world outside our safe havens is not radiating joy,” Henderson said. “The heart of my work is celebration,” Yuyi Morales said. “What we are doing is the search for well-being and happiness and being in a place where we feel safe and can thrive. We are all looking for that. My books continue to be about hope.”
A second closing keynote conversation, featuring Nnedi Okorafor (the Binti series) and Ibi Zoboi (Star Child), rounded out the conference. Okorafor and Zoboi discussed African Futurism and Akata Woman (Viking), the third and final book in Okorafor’s Akata trilogy.
Once more honoring the significance of Black, Native, and other voices of color in literature, the 2022 Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference was a successful celebration of creative community, sustenance, and restoration, with more than 325 attendees, the largest conference to date thanks to its third year of virtual access. Kweli will return next year in early April.